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Former Patients Seeking Answers, Hospital Fields Calls on Surgeon with Hepatitis C

Mar 28, 2002 | Newsday

Former heart surgery patients jammed telephone lines at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset yesterday in an effort to find out whether they were operated on by a doctor who apparently transmitted hepatitis C to several patients in the course of surgery during the past decade.

The name of the physician has not been disclosed, and some patients who contacted the hospital's infectious disease control unit yesterday said they were unable to get immediate answers. Hospital officials, who said they were trying to respond to inquiries within 24 to 48 hours of receiving a call, have described the surgeon as a talented and prolific doctor who operated on about one-third of the hospital's 10,000 open-heart patients in the past 10 years.

"They say some of these symptoms don't show up for five or 10 years," said Emil Macri, 60, of Howard Beach, who underwent open-heart surgery at North Shore in April 1999 and had angioplasty there the following year. "If there's something I can do now, I'd like to know."

Hospital officials said they will offer testing to patients considered to be at risk but do not expect to screen all of the surgeon's former patients for hepatitis C. Officials doubt they will find many, if any, more infections linked to the surgeon.

"It would not be advisable for us to go out and look for carriers," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease at North Shore in Manhasset. Because about 4 million Americans are estimated to carry the virus, he said, "Even if you're identified with having the virus, we don't know how you got it."

Asked whether it is possible that some asymptomatic patients have not yet been diagnosed, Farber acknowledged, "It is possible there are people out there who have not been diagnosed," but added later, "If there are people out there, we believe the number is negligible."

One patient said he called four different offices during the day before receiving an answer from North Shore at 4:12 p.m. yesterday. "They called and told me I'm totally in the clear," said Everett Greenberg, 52, owner of Evergreen Music and Entertainment in Hicksville, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery on Nov. 22, 2000. "Initially they said 24 to 48 hours ... they were most expedient."

Earlier this week, state Health Department officials confirmed that a cardiac surgeon at North Shore appears to have infected at least three and possibly seven patients with hepatitis C, a blood-borne disease that can cause serious long-term liver disease. The earliest infection linked to the North Shore surgeon occurred during surgery in 1993, but hospital officials said the surgeon did not know he had the virus himself until last August when the cluster of infections was brought to his attention.

The doctor, who volunteered to be tested back in August, has modified his surgical technique in an effort to minimize any risk of infection to patients, hospital officials said.

Since August, the surgeon has informed all patients of his hepatitis C status prior to surgery, hospital officials said; most have decided to proceed with the operation because of the surgeon's skill, experience and record of low complications, and a low mortality rate, hospital officials said.

Medical ethicists said yesterday the practice of informing patients of the potential risk and minimizing the risk by modifying procedures were good steps to put in place.

"There's a wide range of potential communicable disease between physician and patient, including things as simple as the common cold," said Dr. Peter Schwartz, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Reading Hospital in Pennsylvania, who has served on ethics committees for several medical associations. "Just because a physician has a potentially communicable disease is not a reason for them to stop caring for any patient."

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